Helping Your Children Understand When the Other Parent “Screws Up”

child covering his ears while his parents argueThere is nothing easy about raising children; but, it gets much more complicated and difficult when the other parent behaves badly, or screws up. While most people agree that parents should be good role models, some parents really drop the ball. Unfortunately, you’re usually the one who has to explain the other parent’s bad behavior to your children.

Children both want and need to understand when a parent does something that is unacceptable or conveys the wrong message. Whether it’s occasional foul language or a criminal act that has landed the other parent in jail, it can be very confusing to them. Children naturally look up to their parents, which is why they need help making sense of the other parent’s bad behavior. Following are some tips to guide you with three particularly challenging situations.

Substance abuse or addiction

If a parent is abusing, or addicted to drugs or alcohol, it often leads to chaos in the home. Living with a parent whose personality seems to change frequently, or who breaks promises when they’re using, can be hurtful, upsetting, and confusing. They may feel the other parent doesn’t love them, or doesn’t care. They may also feel embarrassed by the situation.

When you talk to your children about this issue, it’s important that you explain things in simple terms. Respect their feelings and don’t assume you know how they perceive, or feel about the situation. Allow them to talk freely and openly without judgment. A few other tips:

  • Give them lots of reassurance that you love them, and that the addicted parent loves them too – even though he, or she may not act that way at times.
  • Explain addiction to them in simple terms – e.g., that the other parent is struggling with an illness that they can’t always control, and for which they need help.
  • Emphasize that it is not their fault, nor is it their responsibility to fix the situation.
  • Help them understand that many families have the same problem.
  • Don’t make excuses for the other parent, or try to sugarcoat the situation.


According to a 2008 article, published by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, approximately 7.3 million children in the U.S. had at least one incarcerated parent. Having a parent in jail, or prison, can be very difficult for children. Not only are they separated from the parent, they also have to make sense of where the parent is, and why they are there and not at home. They may feel a wide range of emotions, including sadness, grief, anger, resentment, guilt, and anxiety. Following are some guidelines:

  • Emphasize and reassure them that it is not their fault – they didn’t do something that caused the parent to go away. It’s not uncommon for children to feel responsible for what happened, so it’s very important to reassure them, as often as needed, that this isn’t true.
  • Tell them the truth regarding the other parent’s whereabouts. Don’t make up stories (e.g., that he, or she is away on a long trip, working at a job in another city for a while, in the military, etc.)
  • In simple, age-appropriate terms, explain why the other parent is in prison. For very young children, you can explain that they did something bad (e.g., Daddy took something that wasn’t his) and that there were consequences (i.e., spending some time in jail). There is no need to go into detail regarding the crime that was committed. With older children, it is important that they understand that there are consequences when the law is broken.

Supervised visitation


Supervised visitation can be very confusing for children. As with addiction and incarceration, it is not uncommon for children to believe that it is somehow their fault. Help your children understand that:

  • Absolutely nothing they did caused the situation.
  • This is a complicated adult problem between you and the other parent; and that you are working hard to get it resolved (even though it may ultimately be up to a judge).
  • It is okay to have a lot of different feelings – both good and bad. Encourage them to talk about those feelings (and listen without judgment).
  • Provide an age-appropriate explanation regarding the supervised visits. Keep these explanations as positive as possible, and don’t dwell on the negative reasons behind them. However, don’t be dishonest or evasive. Children are often much more perceptive and aware than adults realize.

In all of these situations, remember that it is crucial to help your children understand that it is the other parent’s behavior that was bad, not the parent himself (or herself). It’s important they realize that good people sometimes do bad things.

What do you think?

Helping Your Children Understand When the Other Parent “Screws Up”

Tell us what you think!


  1. Timothy says:

    I hope my wife grows up soon.. cause if she does not our daughter will know she is a screw up ! I will not have to tell her.

  2. Maria says:

    This is a very informative article. I could have used this a few years ago. I appreciate how it helps you to explain to the child(ren) that what happened is not their fault and that the other parent still loves them. Keep up the good work on providing us with this information.

  3. Phammom says:

    Praying I never need to use these.

  4. Grace says:

    good tips for the rest, any advice for two parents who have the nephew (my husbands sisters son) living with them?

  5. Grace says:

    wait you can go to jail for foul language

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